MIT Unravels the Secrets Behind Collective Intelligence – Hint: IQ Not So Important

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group work

What makes a group able to succeed at large number of different tasks? Women, sharing, and sensitivity.

When it comes to a successful group, the easiest way to ensure victory may be placing women on the team. MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence seeks to understand how humans get better (or worse) at solving problems as they work together. They studied hundreds of people working in small groups and found that they could determine a "C factor", a key statistic that would predict if a group could perform well in a variety of tasks. C factor was more important in determining group success than the individual IQs of the people in the group. In other words, having a successful team isn't just about having smart people, it's about having people who will work together well. And what gives a group a high C factor? Women. Well, to be more precise, a high level of social sensitivity and willingness to let everyone talk equally. As forms of collective intelligence grow in importance, as we see with crowd-sourcing projects like Wikipedia, social search engines, and the scientific community, the value of socially aware individuals is going to arise as well. Is the future going to be inherited by the peacemakers?

MIT's research into measuring collective intelligence was lead by their own Thomas Malone in partnership with Carnegie Mellon's Anita Woolley. The results were published in late 2010 in Science Magazine and have since been discussed in over 30 major press agencies. Everyone loves to talk about how women make teams better, probably because it fulfills some of our most beloved (reviled?) 20th Century Western stereotypes. "Women Are the Key To a Successful Team" makes such a great headline, doesn't it? Despite my own use of that trope (mea culpa), Malone and Woolley didn't find that women per se were the key to a good C factor. It's just that social sensitivity, which was overwhelmingly the leading ingredient in high C factor, was overly correlated to women. In fact, when they controlled for the number of women in a group, it was shown that it was the emotional sensitivity scores which won out. So adding a woman to a team no more guarantees higher success rates than adding an Aaron to your dance party will make it a success. It's the higher levels of those particular skills amongst that group which make the difference, not the presence of that group itself.

Woolley explains this, and many other parts of their collective intelligence research, in the following video:

When Malone, Woolley and the rest of the MIT team set out to measure collective intelligence, it wasn't even clear if such a thing could statistically be shown to exist. Sure, people have spent years measuring how groups perform a task, but no one was really asking if a group that was good at one task would somehow be good at most tasks. That's something we tend to associate with individual IQ, which is often used as a measure for one's universal ability to handle complex problems. Does group IQ, or collective intelligence, really exist? If so, is it just a result of the average individual IQs in the group?

It turns out that a group is more than the sum of its IQs. In two studies, the MIT team watched how small groups (2-5 people) handled complex problems. They made these groups tasks like visual puzzles, brainstorming,making collective moral judgments, and negotiating over limited resources. There were also two criterion projects (study 1 had the team play checkers against a computer, study 2 had the team work on architectural design) where individual IQs were a solid predictor for success. After these studies (which had teams working together for up to five hours!) Malone and Woolley found that some groups were indeed better at almost everything they tried. While maximum and average individual IQ could weakly predict a good group, they found there was a much more important collective intelligence (C) factor that determined a group's success better. If a team had a high C factor they tended to do well in many different activities, even when compared to groups with higher average IQ.

C Factor graph

The C factor was a better indicator for success than either average or maximum IQ in both MIT studies.

Along with discovering the C factor, Malone and Woolley also loosely determined what went in to creating it. Surprisingly, many common sense variables like group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction simply didn't seem to matter much. Instead, MIT determined that groups with a high C factor were mostly defined by:

  • the high average social sensitivity of group members
  • a high rate of sharing who gets to communicate
  • more females

As I've said before, the number of females could be controlled for and the other two ingredients would still shine through. Shared communication is pretty easy to understand as a concept, and it may make sense that it leads to better collective intelligence. A single smart person dominating a group isn't allowing the team to benefit from their shared expertise and insights as well as a a group that asks for input more evenly. Getting everyone in the team to participate, or at least allowing them the opportunity to share, is key to harnessing collective intelligence. MIT studied not simply talking, but nonverbal communication as well, so it may be that this openness corresponds to each person feeling listened to as well.

Social sensitivity, as measured by these experiments, is really about understanding what people around you may be feeling based on small cues. The classic test used to measure social sensitivity is the "Reading the Mind In the Eyes Test" which you can take online. Again, it makes sense that this skill was evident in furthering collective intelligence. Being able to quickly look around a table and determine that one person is very confident in their knowledge, another is impatient with the task, and another wants to share information but isn't feeling able is going to be a big advantage in getting the group working together at maximum potential.

While it's still very early in the history of measuring collective intelligence to understand exactly how Malone and Woolley's research will impact the world, there are clear applications in almost every business environment. Eventually, corporations may be able to use quick social sensitivity tests to better determine how best to form teams out of a pool of employees. There's also the possibility that collective IQ can be improved through training much more than individual IQ. If so, we may be able to take any rag tag group of individuals and teach them how to be a badass problem solving strike team.

Perhaps most importantly, now that we have a fledgling measure of collective intelligence, we may be able to understand which of the emerging forms of crowd-sourcing are really worthwhile investments. Does it make more sense to have a million people working on a problem, if their cooperation is terrible? Maybe a project with just 1000 well coordinated participants will be better? The measurement of a C factor changes the answers to those questions from guesswork into quantitative analysis. With enough research the crowds of tomorrow may be optimized for the best possible amounts of collective intelligence. Not just huge amounts of thought-power, but efficiently organized huge amounts of thought-power. Talk about working smarter not harder.

[image credits: MIT, Woolley et al Science Magazine 2010]

[sources: Woolley et al Science Magazine 2010, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence]

Discussion — 11 Responses

  • wildzbill August 27, 2011 on 8:05 am

    Teams are usually set up and dominated by a leader, a type A personality. Outside of the lab, the conditions for a high collective intelligence would only occur under a lazy leader that hired polite employees.

    • wonkavision wildzbill August 30, 2011 on 10:28 am

      Articles like this encourage business people to promote those lazy leaders and hire polite employees.

      It’s hunting season on the capable individual.

  • chopinzman August 27, 2011 on 3:37 pm

    Haha, I remember in school I would often tell my ‘Team’ to leave me alone and let me do my own thing. But it depends on who I was working with. To tell the truth, I have always preferred working with women, they care less about being ‘right’ and less competitive. This isn’t always true, egos are dangerous.

  • Joe Thorpe August 27, 2011 on 10:23 pm

    Then why aren’t teams of women running the world? There is more to work then intelligence, drive and creativity for an example.

    Sometimes egos are good. It is what drive these people to work their life away, working 24/7.

    It is bull to say one sex is this, one sex is that, I know, I had to take many gender classes to graduate.

    • chopinzman Joe Thorpe August 28, 2011 on 2:58 pm

      I don’t think one sex is better then the other, but I personally prefer working with women. We could argue about whether an ego is good or bad, I have one, and it probably formed as a defense mechanism, but they can be dangerous to teams. Teams are less productive when two or more egos are battling it out for the leadership.

      I agree with you in that you cant really judge someones skills based on their sex. Its ridiculous to say a woman is better at cooking, or a man is more courageous, and that sort of crap. But the sexes are different, and not just in anatomy.

      • Joe Thorpe chopinzman August 28, 2011 on 4:09 pm

        Leadership should be set in the beginning, not fought over. Teams are a valuable tool, so is a single person holding onto a dream. To say a c-factor is important may be true in some small work environment, but not all.

        • chopinzman Joe Thorpe August 28, 2011 on 6:35 pm

          Once again, I’m not disagreeing with you. I don’t think anyone would try to say that leadership should be ‘fought’ over. Alot of people even prefer not to have a leader at all, but instead function democratically, or simply take turns at doing what their most skilled at. In fact a successful leader must be appreciated, and therefore obeyed by his/her followers, so in that sense it is democratic. If one follower has an inflated ego they will probably not want to listen, since they will feel that their abilities exceed anothers.

          As for ego, well, the definition of ‘ego’ isn’t motivation, or inspiration at all. Someone can have an ‘ego’ and claim to be intelligent, without ever pursuing mental improvement. Those things can exist quite well without an ego. Many artists are overcritical and don’t esteem their work highly, but are constantly pursuing to better themselves because they feel inferior.

          Not that an ego can’t create motivation, but it isn’t necessary, or even implied. In fact, I think that a high level of motivation, which succeeds in elevating a persons life, is likely to create an ego. Ego is a natural temptation to anyone who holds a level of power or success. Whether your born into it: (Paris Hilton), or you work your ass off, (Kobe Bryant).

          And what is a c-factor?

          • Joe Thorpe chopinzman September 1, 2011 on 1:57 am

            Agreed, on some points 🙂

            C factor is what women have apparently, in the article above. I wish the article said what it was and how they put a number on it.

            You and I have a different idea of leadership. Maybe we are coming from 2 different views. Yours seems to be an office type style, mine more militaristic.

            I have been on many teams that have had no women and a a$$hole of a leader. That did not mean we where any less hard working or any less willing to fight. Some of the teams were the best in the us army, maybe best in the world. My point is that some people are different than others and each group most act accordingly.

            • chopinzman Joe Thorpe September 1, 2011 on 11:01 am

              Well if I was in a military unit, you obviously need to have someone who makes final decisions. But does this leader not listen to what his subordinates have to say? For a military type situation fascism is best I suppose, (though it is not 100% fascist.) It’s why our military is organized the way it is. It’s like a well-oiled machine (hopefully.)

              But I wasn’t talking about only office situations, I think the democratic effect works best in nearly all situations where preciseness isn’t determinable, and everyone has an equal stake. This could be classroom, government, or at home. But as for very defined projects, building a house, or driving a bus, dictatorship is necessary, in varying degrees.

              But in the determination phase, (Even when the modern military was visualized, I expect.) everything should be democratic, since facts are required to determine a goal and how to get there, it is better to have more people since you will find a wider range of facts and opinions, and if by luck only, valuable discoveries will be made that would have evaded any one person.

  • PatrikD September 12, 2011 on 2:22 pm

    It would be interesting to see how these result change in a purely online setting. Our skills at social interactions have obviously evolved for face-to-face interactions in the real world, not on the anonymous internet.

    I’d imagine you could test the level of interactiveness in various stages: (1) purely online task, between people that do not know each other, communicating by text; (2) ditto, but between people who have spent time with each other beforehand (so you know their gender, and you can fit their words to a mental model of their personality); (3) task to be performed by voice conference; (4) task to be performed by video conference.

    I think the results would say a lot about how we interact online, and how online teams (e.g. open source projects) can work together more efficiently.

  • wildzbill September 12, 2011 on 3:33 pm

    Good points PatrikD.
    I have read some interesting articles about people using telepresence robots. A few people commented that they often forgot that the person was not standing beside them. If you have good quality voice communications and the ability to move and point, you have enough.
    I know that writing is not enough. No matter how careful I am at reading and writing emails, the real feelings never get transmitted.
    True collaboration needs trust.